A Big Firm Shouldn’t Be Your Only Career Plan

By Diane O'Connell

A Big Firm Shouldn’t Be Your Only Career Plan

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.”

– Anonymous ancient proverb, wrongly attributed to Euripides. Quoted as a “heathen proverb” in Daniel: A Model for Young Men (١٨٥٤) by William Anderson Scott

When we go to law school many of us dream of a career in Big Law. We dream of the exciting cases, the prestige, and of course the big salary that comes along with it. While some attorneys do land positions in Big Law, most will not. No matter where you land after law school, your career options are always wide open if your mind is open to exploring them. After all, your law degree has taught you how to think like a lawyer and that’s valuable in a wide range of careers.

The most important first step is understanding what it is you really want out of your career and out of life. Having a healthy mind, a mens sana, is your first step in making these decisions. So, if you are just graduating from law school or you are already working, put your ego, your desire for a big salary and your perceived societal expectations aside, and take some time to consider what you really want. Do you want to work excruciatingly long hours, have status, a big salary, do you want to make an impact in human rights or environmental matters, or do you want a better balance between your career and your personal interests, or perhaps a combination thereof?

To reassure you, it’s never too late to make a change, it just becomes scarier as time goes on. You feel stuck, you have obligations, you have too much going on. But if you are unhappy in your current situation, take heart, you are not alone. David Brooks’ The Second Mountain is an example of how society’s perspective is changing; making such a big life change is more widely accepted, and therefore easier to navigate than it used to be. While some will maintain their career path in a clear and straight trajectory, many others may become dissatisfied or be faced with an unexpected change that forces them to contemplate their career path. If you are in the latter group, you are not alone; the number of lawyers in this category is growing by the day. So take comfort in the fact that there is nothing wrong with you because you are feeling unsatisfied or unimpassioned; you are in good company.

WHAT’S IT LIKE TO WORK IN A BIG FIRM?

What if you are not working at a big law firm, but really think that’s where were you should be if you are going to realize your dream of becoming the attorney you always admired on The Practice. However, you feel more like your career is synonymous with Better Call Saul. Take heart that, once again, you are not alone. However, chances are you didn’t land that job in a Big Law firm for a reason. Working in Big Law requires a certain mindset. It is big, and it is structured. It is demanding in a way that only a few can rise to the occasion: billable hours, getting clients, working long hours. It is not for everyone and, keep in mind, only accounts for 20% of private practice lawyers, and that doesn’t include all the attorneys who are working in other areas.

Big Law firms do offer prestige and large salaries, but there is that tradeoff; the average billable hour requirement is 1,930 per year1 and in some cases can go as high as 2,400. “No worries” you say, that’s only 37 hours/week; however, you need to work, on average, 135% of your billable hours target to reach this requirement. For a 2,200 billable hour requirement, that breaks down to 11 to 12 hours a day Monday-Friday and three Saturdays a month if you include vacations, holidays, administration, and non-client meetings.2 This does not include commute, personal phone calls, bar association activities, training, etc. If you add these to the daily 12 hours of work, you are left with a choice of sleeping less, skipping dinner (or eating at your desk) or limiting your social interactions with friends and family, because as much as you may hear you can, you can’t have it all.

Working in a Big Firm is not for the lighthearted. It takes grit, commitment and sacrifice. But if you want to specialize, receive a lot of perks, earn a high salary, make partner, have more opportunities available to you later in your career, and you are willing to sacrifice personal time, have a top law school degree and a high GPA, this may be the path you choose to take.

However, many law school graduates do not have or want the opportunity to work in Big Law, and many associates who are in Big Law want something different from the traditional “work hard” with a path toward partnership.

SO WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?

There are many career alternatives to choose from, almost an infinite amount. A few of the traditional choices include:

• Not as Big Law firms such as a branch office, mid-sized or boutique firm. These hold a variety of pros and cons, depending on your perspective. There is a fantastic article by BCG Search3 that goes into more detail, but in summary, the not as big law firms will generally provide less perks and lower salaries but also may provide better work-life balance, better technology and more opportunity to make lateral changes. So, this may be a case of less is more depending in your ambitions.

• In House Counsel is more generalized and has no billable hour requirements. The hours may be long, depending on where you work, but the tradeoffs are worth it to many lawyers. However, you usually need some law firm experience. Entry level positions are far and few between.

• Compliance, Investigations, and Risk Management positions can be similar to in-house counsel and have significant impact on the organizations’ operations, but cannot legally represent the organization, so while you are a lawyer, you are not technically practicing law. These can range from entry level through to experienced attorneys.

Other options include human resources, procurement, diversity, project management, coaching, consulting. Really, the sky is the limit (OK maybe space is the limit; after all, we are all attorneys).

The point is that if you are feeling dissatisfied, unhappy, dispassionate, stressed, isolated or bored, and if you feel like you’ve tried everything in your power to move past these feelings but to no avail, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you; it also doesn’t mean you can’t cut it or you’re not good enough; it just means it’s time for a change and there are so many ways to make that change, you just need to accept the situation isn’t a good fit for you and figure out how to move forward without judgment or feeling like a failure. Big Law may be a good fit for some, but no matter what career path you’re in, make sure there is room in your life for what is important to you. If there isn’t, move on and take heart that careers are like shoes; one size does not fit all and sometimes the sizes change. Once you accept this, you can make decisions on how you want to work, with confidence, whether that is in a Big Firm or not.


  • Zaretsky, Staci, The First-Year Associate’s Guide to Managing Billable Hours, National Law Review, https://www.natlawreview.com/article/first-year-associate-s-guide-to-managing-billable-hours (Aug. 26, 2018).
  • The Truth About the Billable Hour, Yale Law, at https://law.yale.edu/system/files/area/department/cdo/document/billable_hour.pdf (July 18, 2018).
  • Barnes, Harrison, Which Type of Law Firm Is Best for You and Your Career: Main Offices of Large National Firms, Branch Offices of Large National Firms, Midsized Firms, Boutiques, or Newer Fast-Growing Firms?, BCG Search, at https://www.bcgsearch.com/article/900047251/The-Five-Types-of-Law-Firms-How-Joining-One-Type-Versus-Another-Can-Impact-Your-Legal-Career/.
Six diverse people sitting holding signs
gradient circle (purple) gradient circle (green)

Join NYSBA

My NYSBA Account

My NYSBA Account